Self-directed, self-paced competency-based learning – A self-fulfilling prophecy!

There’s a quiet disruption that is happening outside of the traditional higher education. Michael Horn’s recent article refers to the millions of adult learners who are undertaking unaccredited, affordable, self-directed, competency-based learning for professional growth and development. Many of these “non-consumers” of higher education don’t have the time or money to undertake a traditional degree program even when it’s offered online, so courses that offer self-directed, competency-based learning are a very good fit for these individuals needs. Much of these type of innovation is happening outside the realm of the traditional higher education via online learning platforms.
The motivation for many of these students is acquiring knowledge and skills, and it is the accreditation of these knowledge and skills (by achieving competency in them), which is often more important than the accreditation of an institution. In particular, the industry endorsement of courses and industry input into defining the knowledge and skills that should go into courses is of utmost importance.

Competency based learning is (and should be) the Next Big Thing!

Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been greatly hyped over the past couple of years, as having potential for disruptive innovation in the higher education sector. With hindsight it’s apparent that this disruptive innovation hasn’t been realised.

Michael B. Horn from the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation writes that online, competency-based programs have held far more disruptive potential. We wholeheartedly agree with this claim. In fact, that’s why an emphasis on competency-based learning lies at the heart of what we are developing for students at Acavista. We think that higher education shouldn’t be about how many hours you spend in class, or what prestigious or expensive institution you attend. Rather, we believe that it should be focused on what students can demonstrate they know and can do.

Horn argues that online, competency-based institutions represent the right learning model (focused on actual mastery of knowledge and skills), with the right technology of online learning, targeted at the right students (“non-consumers” of higher education who are over-served by current universities and are looking for an alternative that is aligned to their workforce needs), paired with a low cost, low-priced, sustainable offering.

We’re learning so much from going out and talking both to students and importantly, people who would like to undertake higher education but don’t feel able to because the current system is too expensive, too inflexible, and doesn’t always provide industry-relevant skills.

Acavista and the next stage of competency-based learning

It’s an exciting time to be in the higher education and ed tech space. The rules are literally being rewritten, as we speak. The US is very much at the forefront of these developments, and although Acavista is head-quartered in Australia, we’re certainly not prepared to sit on the sidelines and wait and see what happens.

The start of 2013 saw Barack Obama raising the issue of university accreditation in his State of the Union Address to Congress. In the Domestic Policy Blueprint that accompanied the speech he called for major changes to the nation’s system of accreditation. This development could provide a pathway for federal financial aid for competency-based learning, MOOCs and other innovations. He has called on Congress to either require existing accreditors to take value and quality into account, or to create a new alternative system of accreditation that would bypass the old gatekeepers.

The “credit hour” has been higher education’s gold standard. Not many people realise that the credit hour was devised by Andrew Carnegie in 1906 because he wanted to create a free pension plan for underpaid professors, enabling them to retire at a reasonable age. The “Carnegie Unit” was intended to be used to measure how much time students spent in each subject, as admissions to colleges were growing. It was never intended to be used to measure student learning, and there were concerns about it being misappropriated for this use shortly after it was introduced. All of this however, has remained unchanged, up until now.

In March 2013, the US Department of Education endorsed competency-based education, which some commentators have suggested could be a game changer for adult students, more so than the current hype around MOOCs. This signals a move away from the credit hour to measure student learning, to a focus on the achievement of competencies. It is suggested that competency-based education makes a degree more valuable since potential employers understand what students should be able to do (as spelled out in competencies) and the extent to which they can actually do it (their performance on assessments). In recent years, there has been a big expansion in universities offering competency-based offerings to working adults. For example, Western Governor’s University (WGU) has seen continued growth in it’s competency-based programs. Students at WGU on average complete their degree in 30 months with a total tuition of about US $17,000. This compares with the US $56,000 to state and student for four years at a public regional university in the US.

“Direct assessment” academic programs are regarded as the next step for competency-based assessment. This is because, unlike traditional academic programs, they are untethered from both course material and the credit hour standard (which links the awarding of academic credit to the hours of contact between academic staff and students).

According to Paul Fain, in the US the Lumina Foundation, the U.S Department of Education, State higher education agencies and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are currently in negotiations about how this new model of “direct assessment” for academic programs might evolve further. Several institutions in the US are experimenting with online programs in direct assessment, with Southern New Hampshire University and Capella University being notable examples.

Acavista aims to be at the forefront of offering “direct assessment” programs, starting initially in the Australian market, but ultimately with global reach. For example, enabling students in developing countries who want to obtain a degree qualification to do so. Acavista is aiming to be the institution of choice for students wanting ultimate flexibility in their higher education experience. Like our tagline says, it’ll be the place where they come to “Choose a course. Get assessed. Get recognised!”